What Preaching Means to Me

Introduction

I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

The work of the gospel preacher in the promotion of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth is extremely important. And, as with most professions and vocations, it comes with quite the learning curve.

I originally wrote down some thoughts regarding the work of preaching and what it meant to me in April of 2008; by that time I had done part-time evangelism for 6 years and full-time work for just over 2 years. I returned to the theme again in August of 2016, having spent eight more years in full-time ministry and evangelism.

I leave the material as is so as to present different snapshots in the development process. I hope and pray these thoughts may provide some benefit, encouragement, and maybe a bit of wisdom hard won through difficult experiences which may help others in their work in ministry and to understand what gospel preachers experience.

April 2008

Before I begin, I would like to remind everyone that this comes from one who has been a Christian for nine years now, who preached part-time for six years and is in his third year of full-time work. There’s your caveat emptor. 🙂

I did not intend on being an evangelist. From sixth grade onwards I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I amassed (thanks to my parents) an impressive collection of Egyptological books, studied French, Latin, and Greek in high school toward that endeavor, and was accepted to and matriculated at the University of Chicago, home of the famous Oriental Institute, having one of the greatest Egyptology departments in the country.

As I reflect, however, it is apparent that God had other plans for me.

I became a Christian in 1999, just before I graduated from high school. I spent much time discussing matters of the faith with people of all kinds of religious backgrounds, and read continually in the Bible and other resources. By the time I entered college I was spending more time on religious matters than educational ones.

While assembling with the brethren of the Hessville church in Hammond, Indiana, I was encouraged to try my hand at preaching. At that point, it was the furthest thing from my mind; I wasn’t ready for it yet. They encouraged me, and I got up and did so. “Foundations of the Faith” was my first lesson, actually written over a couple of hours before I was to present it, and it lasted 35 minutes.

Soon after the preacher there left, and I ended up preaching on denominational errors on Sunday evenings for weeks on end. It was apparent to everyone else where I was heading, but not me. Even though I could have been doing better in school, I still intended to complete my course of study.

By May of 2000 I recognized that I needed to change course, and that’s when I determined to become an evangelist.

I did part-time preaching when possible for a few years, returned to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and by the end of 2005 I was getting ready to wrap up my degree and to begin full-time work.

I began to do much praying regarding the matter, and I consciously left it up to God. After all, if I was going to be His servant in preaching His Gospel, I’d better go where He wills, and not necessarily where I would go. Northern Ohio was not on my radar screen at that particular juncture. But I believe that I am where God would have me to be.

I begin by giving my personal story so far because I believe that preaching the Gospel, the work of the evangelist, is one of the most important works that can be done, and one with great responsibility. It is the subject of much confusion and misunderstandings, and while it can be done by some in a halfway manner, it is only worth doing when it is done right.

I, personally, cannot imagine doing anything else. After over two years and plenty of hours invested it still does not really feel like work. I feel as if I’m doing what I want to do and would do anyway and I have the blessing of getting support for doing so.

That attitude supports me in the difficult and testing times that come with evangelism.

What does all this matter? It gets down to an essential point: a calling. I recognize that we are hesitant to talk about a “calling,” since the denominational world often takes the concept and abuses it. It would seem that in the eyes of many, people sit around and God gives them some kind of call to be a preacher. I believe that we serve a God who is much more creative than that, and we should not deny a Biblical truth because of denominational distortions.

Evangelists need to have a calling to the work. God is the one who should be appointing us for His service, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:12, and not the other way around. The imperative of promoting the Kingdom of God must be deeply felt within the preacher, so that he is like Paul, and can declare, “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16), or be like Jeremiah, as he declares in Jeremiah 20:9:

And if I say, “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name,” then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with forbearing, and I cannot contain.

There must be passion for the work of God and devotion to His purposes and His purposes alone. There must be love, care, and compassion for God’s people, and the preacher needs to have the “concern for the churches” like Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:28)

I cannot understand how anyone would be a preacher for the money. I do recognize that one can live decently as a preacher, but the effort (that should be) expended is never worth the money made. The work requires humility and the willingness to serve in ways that may go unrecognized or that one feels is “beneath them.” Money alone cannot sustain a preacher in the work!

Neither can fame or notoriety. I fear that too many aspiring preachers become enamored with the pulpit and the accolades that come from preaching. Some may not really understand the encouragement that brethren are offering, and believe themselves to be better preachers than they are in reality. Some may not see how the work is that difficult: after all: you “only work four hours a week,” and people compliment you for it!

While I have no problem owning up to the description of “preacher” or “gospel preacher,” I prefer the term “evangelist,” and for this very reason. What should be understood by the preacher, and sometimes less so by members, is that preaching is really one of the least of the tasks of the evangelist.

What is an evangelist, anyway? The term involves one who promotes the “evangel”, that is, the “good news,” or the Gospel. The evangelist promotes the Gospel of Christ and His Kingdom.

As I see it, the evangelist has two main areas in which to do this.

1. Promotion of the Gospel of Christ and His Kingdom in the midst of the Kingdom.

Part of the work of the evangelist is to promote the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom in the midst of its citizens: the church (cf. Philippians 3:20). The evangelist does so by preaching the Word of God from the pulpit, encouraging, rebuking, instructing, and exhorting as appropriate (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2). This also occurs in instruction in Bible classes, personal studies, group studies, or other such forums (cf. Acts 2:42). The evangelist is also there to encourage the members themselves, perhaps in group settings, or perhaps in individual settings.

There is often confusion between the work of the evangelist and the work of the eldership, and in congregations where there is no eldership, the evangelist, rightly or wrongly, picks up responsibility. Elders are there to shepherd and oversee the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4); that is not the evangelist’s role. The evangelist is there to promote and encourage the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:2, etc.). I have used the imagery of the shepherd, the sheep, and the border collie. The shepherds are the elders, and the sheep are the members. The evangelist is the border collie: he barks (encourages/exhorts) at the sheep (members) at the direction of the shepherds (elders), and he barks (encourages/exhorts) at the shepherds (elders) when he sees things going on with the sheep (members).

The evangelist also promotes the Gospel by his own example of life and conduct (1 Timothy 4:12). He must recognize that he himself can change no one but himself: but if he puts himself forward as an example of the servant of God, he will do better at persuading others to greater faithfulness.

2. Promotion of the Gospel of Christ and His Kingdom to those without.

Sometimes there is a disconnect between what the New Testament reveals and our current practices: we see great promoters of the Gospel of the New Testament focusing mostly on outsiders, and too often preachers focus exclusively on those within. It was recognized from the earliest days that all the burdens could not be borne by one man or a few men, that the word of God would be forsaken if tables were also served (Acts 6:2). Likewise, the evangelist cannot devote his energies to promoting the Word of God in a community if he is constantly expected to deal with internal issues. There is wisdom in God’s plan: elders shepherding the flock give evangelists the opportunity to devote a good part of their time to promoting the Gospel, the very task they are charged to do.

This does not mean that the evangelist should not spend time with the members, but he must recognize that his responsibility goes beyond the local church.

On the other hand, however, we cannot say that evangelism to the outside world is only the preacher’s job. This is especially a danger in our modern specialized world: we have few jacks-of-all-trades anymore, and we have specific people whom we pay money to for specific purposes. We take our car in to the brake shop or the oil changing station; we go to the doctor who specializes in our particular ailment; many have people to take care of their gardens, their children, their recreation, and other such tasks. In such a climate it is tempting to “outsource” evangelism to its “specialist,” the evangelist.

Yet promoting the Gospel is the responsibility of every Christian (Matthew 28:18-20), and there are many examples of “regular Christians” who were able to convert others to the faith (cf. Acts 18:25-28). In fact, in many ways today, the evangelist is the least able to do good promotion of the Gospel: he is often brought in from another location to evangelize, and therefore has not built up relationships in the community, and when it is discovered that he is a preacher, many will automatically be suspicious of his intentions (he’s just telling me about Jesus so he can make more money!, etc.). “Regular members” are in better positions to promote the Gospel: they have relationships with members of the community, and their witness is perceived as more authentic, because they have nothing to gain financially from others being part of the church.

So where does the evangelist fit into evangelism? It would seem to me that the evangelist should be an example and guide of evangelism. Not dictator or ruler or any such thing, but a guide: leading others in evangelism by laying a foundation or path, encouragement, and example. The evangelist stands in the pulpit and exhorts his fellow Christians to be active in the work, promoting God’s Kingdom in their own lives. The evangelist considers ways to promote the Gospel and works with the members to get them going: door knocking, Bible correspondence courses, tracts, bulletin mailings, websites, gospel meetings, lectures in public forums, radio and/or television lessons, newspaper articles, and so on. When such is done, and contacts and interested people begin to come around, he then can be trusted with “sealing the deal” and teaching them via Bible studies what they must do to be saved. Just as critically, if not more so, the evangelist should work with young converts to strengthen them in the faith and quickly move them from spiritual infancy to spiritual childhood, lest spiritual infant death syndrome strikes more souls.

In all matters, the evangelist must remember who his Boss is, and constantly speak with his Boss about the work and how it can be more effective (i.e. prayer). The evangelist must represent the humble servant of God, seeking not his own will or fame but in all things the advancement of God’s Kingdom.

It is not easy. It is often challenging. One cannot help but get emotionally invested. There are high points and low points. We succeed sometimes and fail in others. In the end, however, if our work was not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58), and it is found that we were able to advance God’s purposes for His Kingdom in this world, then it is more than worthwhile.

August 2016

After two and a half additional years in ministry in northern Ohio, and now over five and a half years of ministry and evangelism in Los Angeles, I can look back to the above and appreciate most of what was said. The work of evangelism and preaching demands a type of calling, a strong drive and passion for the work and especially for people. It is not about the money. It is about encouraging people in the Gospel, both those within and without. It is about being a model and guide in evangelism. The past eight years have only served to reinforce those principles.

Having transitioned into a congregation without elders I can attest to the wisdom of elders shepherding a congregation. It has also forced me to recognize a major element of the work of preaching often missed when young, one pointed out by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-12:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (ESV).

The goal of the work of encouraging the saints is to equip them for the work of ministry. In a sense this fulfills the ultimate aspiration of any type of leader, which is to prove replaceable, and to instill in others the same passion and direction that one has in oneself.

To obtain this wisdom demands that the preacher recognize his limitations. It is easy as a younger evangelist to feel the need to overcompensate, to prove important and necessary by how much one attempts to accomplish. It becomes evident soon enough that the work cannot depend on the evangelist: he is only one person and has only so much time. If the new converts or recent visitors develop a great relationship with him but no one else in the congregation, the likelihood of them sticking around is very slim: he alone cannot sustain a connection between people and the greater body of Christ. He can reach only so many people; he can have only so much credibility in the eyes of a few.

The work of ministry is done by and among the people of God; we must multiply and find replacements, those who can keep proclaiming the message and encouraging souls when we have moved on. It is not enough to merely tell or to show fellow Christians what to do; they must also be guided, enabled, and encouraged to do it on their own. We may see all around us Christians who are quite capable of various forms of ministry but they lack confidence rather than willpower. They see others who may have a better handle on such things and feel inadequate. Such people need to be encouraged to do the work. That can only happen in the context of relationship; furthermore, it’s a lot more like coaching than we might have imagined at first. I, for one, did not sign up for that: I envisioned my role at first as one primarily of teacher and expositor, an explainer, which plays to my strengths. Encouragement via coaching is not nearly as comfortable for me, but it is what the work demands.

I have also learned the importance and value of patience. We want to see results and we want to see results soon; God has rarely worked that way. The best things in life take practice and effort, and growth and sanctification are processes. It is not as if this was really news; I just did not expect to have to take multiple years to see various opportunities develop, to see people really grow in their confidence and service, and to enjoy some level of success in ministry. I’ve questioned, second-guessed, and despaired frequently throughout the process, and yet God has proven faithful. It’s a very humbling experience.

And experience is the great teacher. So much of what needs to be learned in evangelism and ministry, as in Christianity in general, must be learned through experience and effort. Wise young people may learn a few things from those who went before them, perhaps more regarding what not to do than what do to, but experience and trial and effort are the great teachers. I’ve gained quite a lot of hard-won wisdom: be clear in your intentions when participating in outreach (e.g. make it about church if you want to talk about church and assembly; make it about Bible study if it you want to encourage Bible study); the worst feeling in the world is when details get missed and you feel like an amateur; get used to the awkwardness; most everyone else feels like they are doing their best but feels as if they are fumbling in the dark too. It’s not about us in the end; it’s about God’s glory in Christ. We’re not going to have all the answers; it is more important to point people to trust in God in Christ. We do well to take our work seriously, pursue it with excellence, yet maintain relational authenticity and connection.

I would again repeat what I believe is quite true: that which most people imagine is the work of preaching, getting up and speaking on Sunday morning, is actually the least of the efforts. So much more effort goes into encouraging saints in other contexts, seeking to proclaim the Gospel among the lost, pursuing personal and familial study, development, and devotion, and in other respects equipping the saints for the work of ministry. It is the greatest work, and it requires much more than an ability to speak; it will demand all of you, mind, heart, and soul.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1-3).

Ethan R. Longhenry

What Preaching Means to Me